Cocktails have long suffered as the kitchen's redheaded stepchild. Home and professional chefs lavish love and creativity on food prep and wine pairings, but when it comes to cocktails, cranking open canned mixers often seems good enough—but not for chef Kelly Liken.
Liken creates cocktails for her eponymous Vail restaurant that are every bit as chef-driven as her entrées. "I'm doing exactly what I do in the kitchen, but in the liquor zone," she says. The result is an ever-changing menu of exquisite potions featuring seasonal organic ingredients and a masterful balance of flavors.
Instead of bottled mixers, stand juicers line the bar at Restaurant Kelly Liken, and bartenders press citrus fruits as drinks are ordered to achieve the freshest, brightest flavor. Liken also exploits vibrant vegetables: Her signature drink is Kelly's Heirloom Tomato Martini, made only in August and September when great tomatoes are available. With them, Liken prepares a consommé that lends the cocktail the complexity of a French sauce.
Her new Wascally Wabbit, a combination of carrot and ginger juices with vodka, Grand Marnier, and fresh tarragon, took top honors at this year's Taste of Vail; in 2006, Liken won with her Cucumber Lime Elixir, which blends sweetened cucumber and lime juices with gin. Ingredients are locally grown and organic whenever possible, even the alcohol: Liken prefers organic liquors made by Peak Spirits, a Colorado distillery (see box below). "They pour beautifully next to any premium liquor," Liken says.
Formulating such adventuresome new drinks allows Liken to flex her creative muscles in a realm where few rules exist. "With a meal, diners expect certain elements, like a protein, a starch, a vegetable," she explains. "But with cocktails there are no expectations, so I can really play around with flavor combinations, just in a liquid form." Liken's creative license is a drinker's delight: culinary wizardry in a glass.
Kelly's Heirloom Tomato Martini
- 2 ½ ounces CapRock Organic Vodka
- 2 ½ ounces heirloom tomato consommé (see recipe below)
Combine ingredients in a shaker. Shake and strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with two heirloom cherry tomatoes on a toothpick.
- 2 pounds very ripe heirloom tomatoes
- ½ green jalapeño
- 1 garlic clove
- 3 tablespoons kosher salt
Chop tomatoes, garlic, and jalapeño roughly. Place in a bowl with kosher salt. Let marinate for at least 30 minutes.
Transfer tomato mixture to a food processor and pulse several times until roughly chopped. Line a mesh sieve with a cloth napkin and pour tomato mixture into sieve. Let the mixture drain overnight, and add to tomato martini (see recipe above).
Cucumber Lime Elixir
- ½ ounces CapRock Organic Gin
- cucumber-lime juice (see recipe below)
In a tall Collins glass, combine gin, ice, and juice. Garnish with a cucumber slice.
- Cucumber Lime Juice
- 4 cucumbers, peeled and seeded
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup simple syrup
- 3 limes, juiced
In a food processor, add cucumbers and water, and pulse to purée. Strain through a sieve, and add lime juice and simple syrup. Makes one quart.